Special Forces leader cites 'stupid' shooting, adultery, alcohol in team’s disciplinary breakdown
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 24, 2018
A Green Beret who fired on a civilian truck in Afghanistan showed “horribly poor judgment” during a deployment in which officers let soldiers drink alcohol and have sex in violation of military rules, the team’s enlisted leader stated in an Army investigation report.
A video montage that showed an American soldier firing a shotgun into the driver’s window of an Afghan cargo truck was posted online late last year, stirring controversy and prompting military officials to promise a thorough investigation.
Though Army investigators found no wrongdoing, an investigative report obtained by Stars and Stripes reveals new details, including allegations of “toxic” team members and failures in discipline and professionalism that carried over into operations, leading to the shooting, which the team’s senior noncommissioned officer called “stupid.”
The incident came as some officials have questioned whether the military is relying too much on special operations units and raised concerns about the strain of frequent deployments on the elite forces.
Officials found no probable cause to believe there was a killing or violation of the rules of engagement, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command said in May.
A soldier had fired a nonlethal beanbag round into the truck after its driver ignored several warnings not to encroach on a U.S. convoy, officials said.
The investigation report includes sworn statements from most of the 12-member team, though the names of the members and two other Green Berets interviewed in late January at Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, Calif., were redacted.
Part of the California National Guard’s Alpha Company, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the 12-man team deployed to Afghanistan in late 2016. The shooting occurred sometime in January or February 2017 near Bagram Air Field, officials said.
The shot through the window may have been the only way to get the driver’s attention, the team’s commander, a captain, told an investigator. The driver ignored small flares and other warnings, he said.
The captain assessed the driver as “fine” after the incident and said if the shooting had resulted in a death, locals would have complained on social media about coalition forces “conducting vile acts (with) no repercussions.”
Claims of alcohol use, adultery
A master sergeant who was the team’s operations sergeant and senior NCO on the deployment, however, raised concerns about violations of standard operating procedures and questioned the shot placement, calling it “horribly poor judgment” to fire into the window.
“Even if the civilian vehicle was trying to disrupt or enter into part of our convoy, ignored pen flares as warnings, a shot to the metal door could achieve the same message without putting the civilian driver at risk of injury,” he said.
A 10-year veteran of Special Forces teams, known as Operational Detachment Alphas, or ODAs, and several deployments, the master sergeant described having his authority subverted by fellow NCOs because he had taken a stand against allowing soldiers to violate General Order No. 1, which prohibits alcohol use and sex in Afghanistan.
The team’s commander and assistant commander permitted the violations, he alleged, and let at least two soldiers carry on extramarital affairs at Bagram.
Adultery is also a military law violation carrying a maximum punishment of one year of confinement, a dishonorable discharge and financial penalties.
“Throughout the deployment, I had to deal with toxic individuals who undermined my authority because they were being protected by the ODA officers,” he said. “This behavior spilled over into our operations, with poor decision-making by these individuals and those on the ODA negatively influenced by them.”
One team member risked exposing Special Forces techniques and “practices used worldwide” after leaving a vehicle at a local repair shop and then lying to cover it up, the team sergeant said.
‘Toxic, negative influence’
The incident with the shotgun was another symptom of that dysfunction, the team sergeant said.
Investigators found that during the deployment the team had been issued one Benelli M1 Super 90 shotgun matching the description of the weapon in the video, hundreds of slugs and door breaching shells, and dozens of nonlethal M1013 crowd dispersal rounds filled with rubber balls. Beanbag rounds were not mentioned on the weapons list.
A sergeant first class unilaterally added use of the shotgun and nonlethal rounds to the team’s procedures, the master sergeant said. That sergeant first class often did whatever he wanted, regardless of regulations, and “has a long history of discipline issues and has been a toxic, negative influence” on the team, the master sergeant added.
“The ODA will perpetually have discipline issues and violate security clearance regulations because people are no longer held accountable when others only care about numbers over quality of individuals,” the master sergeant said in his sworn statement.
Other team members defended the use of the shotgun, offering context that had been lacking from the online video, which was titled “Happy Few Ordnance Symphony” and featured just one 2-second clip of the shooting among dozens of other clips of combat footage.
Believed to have been shot by a team member who frequently wore a GoPro camera, the brief clip shows what looks like helmet-mounted camera footage of a gunner in an RG33 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle turret firing the shotgun, shattering the driver’s side window just before the montage cuts away.
The driver had been swerving in and out of a convoy of U.S. and Afghan vehicles on the main north-south road through Parwan province for more than a mile, and had ignored verbal and hand signals, blaring horns, pen flares, flash-bang grenades, and attempts to run him off the road, soldiers said in sworn statements.
The team’s intelligence sergeant, who said he saw the truck’s brake lights come on and the vehicle come to a stop along the roadside after the shooting, said he would have followed the same escalation of force procedures.
“If placed in the same situation, I would have taken the same actions: pen flare, flash-bangs, less lethal, lethal,” he said. “These steps are used to mitigate collateral damage to the locals and to protect the lives of American soldiers and their partner forces.”
Car bombs were being moved from Tagab district in nearby Kapisa province into and through Bagram for use in attacking U.S. convoys at the time, the intelligence sergeant said. A similar truck had been used in an attack on a joint coalition and Afghan base.
Promoting a clothing company
Some of the video’s other combat footage appears to have come from part of the deployment when five Green Berets, including two connected to the video, were sent to augment a second team fighting the Islamic State in Nangarhar province.
A junior weapons sergeant who would have been the gunner in the turret likely took much of the footage. Some also recalled viewing the truck shooting clip on his laptop. He and another team member had started a clothing company the video had been used to promote online.
The junior weapons sergeant invoked his rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present, but investigators obtained Google and Facebook data that linked logins to the clothing company’s online accounts to areas near the soldier’s home.
The master sergeant said he felt he had failed the junior weapons sergeant by not ensuring better leadership and mentorship on the deployment.
“I saw the risks in keeping certain members of the ODA despite my instinct to replace them,” he said. “I deployed with what I had to work with.”
The master sergeant has since been replaced as operations sergeant, which he said was a result of his stance against sex and alcohol use. His successor told investigators that he instructed his soldiers not to post their military activities on social media.
An official with the California National Guard declined to answer questions about the allegations and referred inquiries to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. A spokeswoman for the 19th Special Forces Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan said in a statement it would be inappropriate to comment on alleged events that occurred before the outfit’s current leadership took command, but said all military, Defense Department civilians and contractors fall under General Order No. 1.
“No one is exempt from GO #1 while in theater with SOJTF-A,” the statement said.